My Take: Learn about the Bible, even if you don't believe it
April 20th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Learn about the Bible, even if you don't believe it

Editor's Note: Kristin Swenson, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time.

By Kristin Swenson, Special to CNN

"True Grit's" stern little girl Mattie - shoot, the Coen Brothers’ entire movie - dramatizes a single line of biblical text. And the way the film interprets that particular text makes that biblical verse directly related to the governor of Illinois' recent decision to ban the death penalty, a decision which was reportedly informed by the Bible.

The movie’s and the Illinois governor’s conclusions - about capital punishment in this case - are exactly opposite. While Mattie's justice requires death for the man who killed her dad, the governor's has no place for such execution. Yet both have biblical precedent.

So knowing about the Bible not only makes the movies more fun and enables critique of public policy, but it also paradoxically encourages you to think for yourself.

The Bible's long history of development, reflecting many voices, and the fact that it’s usually read in translation invite our engagement with it not merely as passive recipients of a fixed meaning but as unique individuals bringing different points of view to bear.

The trick, of course, is knowing something about the Bible, even if you don’t believe in it. And the more you know, the more intriguing it gets.

If you're not biblically literate, you can get along all right, but you're missing out. It's like a cocktail party with raucous conversation. You're invited, but until you know something about the Bible, you'll be stuck talking about the weather at the punch bowl.

Yes, "True Grit" is entertaining no matter what, and you can take Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn at his word that his death penalty decision has biblical basis, but each invites a deeper understanding. And together, they reflect the Bible's ambivalence - in this case about crime and punishment.

"The wicked flee when none pursueth," a line from Proverbs 28:1, hangs auspiciously on the screen at the beginning of "True Grit."

Knowing that Hebrew (the original language of Proverbs) creates its poetry out a system of parallel lines, might lead you to check out the line after the one quoted in True Grit: "but the righteous are as bold as a lion."

Linking the criminals' running to the boldness of a lion, the biblical verse suggests a world in which courageous good guys chase down the yellow-bellied bad with the same determination, cunning and strength as the king of beasts.

That's our Mattie, at 14 years old a cub, but single-minded in her quest to bring to justice the man who killed her father. Mattie is "the righteous," of course, and the justice she seeks is death.

Because the Bible is sacred scripture, authoritative and instructive for millions of people, many people believe, like Mattie, that certain criminals should be put to death because of what it says.

After all, the Torah, or "law," prescribes execution in several specific cases, including murder.

Yet Illinois Gov. Quinn is said to have consulted the Bible while wrestling with his decision to abolish the death penalty. What gives?

People looking to the Bible for a single, clear, yes-or-no answer about the death penalty will be disappointed, just as they are when seeking a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to abortion or environmental ethics.

For one thing, another translation of torah is "instruction." So maybe those "laws" shouldn't be taken so literally.

Indeed, while the Bible allows for all sorts of killing and would seem to demand criminal execution in certain cases, it also commands "thou shalt not kill/murder," identifies God as the only ultimate judge, and praises forgiveness and mercy.

I don't know Quinn, but I suspect he knows enough about the Bible to know that he also had to think for himself. He wisely considered that our human systems, justice included, are imperfect - and that the wrong person might be pegged for a capital crime.

Knowing about the Bible, no matter what you believe, enables you see not only why Quinn would settle on the ban but also why it was such a difficult decision: sometimes the Bible says different things.

"God said it, I believe it, that settles it," is available for bumper stickers, t-shirts, mugs, and posters. Yet the Bible's multiplicity of voices and complex history invite you to learn more and in the process to add your own voice, thoughts, and deliberations to the conversation.

First, though, you’ve got to learn about it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kristin Swenson.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Movies • Opinion

soundoff (1,814 Responses)
  1. Damn

    Bible = Dark ages!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Proverbs 13:2-3

      (2) A man shall eat good by the fruit of {his} mouth: but the soul of the transgressors {shall eat} violence. (3) He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: {but} he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction.


      April 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • El Kababa

      Psalms 137:9 ,
      "How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock,"

      April 20, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • El Kababa

      20:10 If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
      20:13 If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death.
      22:20-1 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.

      Fathers, if your teenage daughters are not virgins, then they should be stoned to death.

      April 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  2. Loki Mythos

    Actually reading the bible is the surest and quickest way to become an Atheist.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • StoopidIzAzStoopidDuz

      There aren't quicker ways? You realize how long the Bible is...?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      And reading The Origin of Species, the Atheist Bible, is the quickest way to get out of Atheism when you see how comically wrong it is.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  3. God

    I have come to the conclusion that my followers on Earth are total dumb-asses. Therefore, I have decided to put all religious people in big padded room after they die and tell them it's heaven. They get to spend the rest of eternity screaming their dumb-ass insanity at each other. I then will go hang out with the non-religious people, bring in some kegs and pizza, have the Beatles play. They are far more fun.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  4. Chris Highland

    As a teacher I appreciate the invitation to read a wide and diverse variety of literature. I think it wise to read the bible as well as the tao and the qur'an, the dhammapada, vedas, gita and other scriptures. Most people never will. Maybe John Muir's invitation to read the bible of Nature, wide open to anyone at anytime, is what we really need to hear and practice in our world so deeply divided by "holy books."

    April 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  5. Howard

    The first instance of murder in the Bible is when Cain slew Abel. Yet, God did not execute Cain; he did not strike him dead. Instead, he put a mark on him and banished him into the wilderness. So much for capital punishment.

    Bible aside, God has the luxury of infallibility; humans do not. It's become painfully obvious through scientific evidence that humans have a terrific propensity for sending innocent people to prison, even sentencing them to death. What would God say to those who use His Holy Word as a justification for taking the life of an innocent man?

    April 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  6. Michael

    It's too bad how ignorant some people portray themselves.
    The language of the bible maybe old but the lessons and stories are true. There are many lessons to be learned and followed. The world would be a better place if all we did was follow the 10 commandments nothing more. But don't under estimate the power of stupid people in large groups.

    At the end of the day it is better to live your life like you believe in heaven and find out doesn't exist rather than to live your life like there isn't a heaven to find out that it does.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  7. KinNYC

    I think Julia Sweeney did a Showtime show on her study of the bible. Very interesting. Everytime she had a question or found a contradiction she would go to her priest. He would just confuse her more.

    It's should have been called a guide book – – so you can make your own decision. Not the bible or Law. Makes too many people crazy in its interpretation.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  8. El Kababa

    As a young man, I read the Bible cover to cover trying to see the wisdom that others saw. I read the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation three times. I thought I was too stupid to comprehend that this was the supreme collection of wisdom from the greatest of all Intellects.

    Then I thought, "What if the Bible doesn't make sense?" That realization allowed the scales to fall from my eyes. I realized that if you read the Bible as nonsense, it is clear as a bell.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • StoopidIzAzStoopidDuz

      Was that from your freshman philosophy paper? Nice try.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • El Kababa

      No, that is the short version of a lifetime of thought. Religion caused me a lot of psychological problems as a young man. I spent a lot of time reading the Bible and reading about the history of the Bible.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  9. RighterOfWrongs

    To all the indignant atheists out there. The author is not saying the bible is valid, correct or even good. She is simply suggesting you read it to be informed. Before someone decides to reply "oh you're some nutty christian defending it" I should point out I am an atheist. If you wish to argue against something you should know what you're arguing against. If you want to point out the bible is absurd, you need to know what it says. Don't divide into camps and scream "I'll never read the bible! It's insane and evil!" like some retarded howler monkey flinging crap. Think intelligently and debate rationally by being informed. Otherwise you're as bad as the fundamentalists who stick solely to the bible and refuse to look at any other viewpoint that you so revile.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Cason

      The irony is that most atheists are more religiously literate than most religious folk.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • yup

      Coming from a Christian, thank you. There are a handful of us that are rational and don't like to shove things down people's throats and judge and condemn those that are not Christians. Not all Muslims kill people in planes. Not all atheists are angry, unfaithful alcoholics. We get that (well, some of us) so wwe appreciate the returned respect.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • jESUIT

      Amen Brother!

      April 20, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Very well said, Righter.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Artist

      I wonder what percentage of christians have read the koran? I wonder what percentage of christians know that their old testy does not include all the books the jewish people read? I wonder what percentage of christians know the true history on how their word of god was cherry picked and decided by a few men (otherwide manufactured by a few men)?

      April 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Matthew 12:34,36-37

      (34) For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. (36) But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. (37) For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.


      April 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Suzie

      How about this quote....

      “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

      April 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  10. STLBroker


    April 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  11. Michael

    I read the bible and found out that God killed all of the first born children of Egypt and realized that if such a god really did exist he didn't deserve any respect, praise, or worship. It permanently delivered me from the bondage of Christianity. I found the truth and it set me free.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • StoopidIzAzStoopidDuz

      Reading something at face value and digging deep to understand the meaning are two completely different things. Nice job, though, citing one small part of the Bible and ignoring all the other stuff in there. You're really credible.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Michael

      Stupid, this was one of over a thousand examples of sadistic violence perpetrated by your "loving" god, I cited it because it was by itself sufficient to disown your sky daddy.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • outofcontext

      Did you not read the next part? Where he kills HIS first born so that justice in done unto the world and He has no more wrath? Only reading the first part of the Bible is like only knowing the first part of Sleeping Beauty. She was locked in a castle. The end. Really? No. She was saved. But you don't know that unless you read the rest of the book, right?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Michael

      Oh, now I understand, because after Hitler gassed 10M Jews, he gave Evan Braun a nice massage, therefore he was really a nice guy after all.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'I read the bible and found out that God killed all of the first born children of Egypt '
      Dont forget the bit where god apparently needed his followers to mark their doors so he would not visit them. What god needs signs on doors?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      A fool's mouth {is} his destruction, and his lips {are} the snare of his soul.

      Proverbs 7


      April 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Suzie

      I can quote too...

      Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.
      Benjamin Franklin

      April 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Mirror, Mirror


      Look here - it's you: A fool's mouth {is} his destruction, and his lips {are} the snare of his soul.

      April 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  12. Allen Russell


    April 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Henry Baskerville

      Why do they always write like a cat is running back and forth across the keyboard? Illiteracy and religion always seems to go hand-in-hand.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  13. Cavillis

    I don't think you realize what it means to not believe. I shouldn't read the bible if I don't believe because any time someone makes a point or passes a law based on biblical text its already wrong.

    I don't have to read the bible to understand why some laws are passed. There should be no laws passed based on religious beliefs, they should only be passed to help people.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Cavillis

      and before the trolls be trollin – i mean it's "already wrong" in a moral sense, because it was based on religion. Obviously some of the rules from the bible are right.

      If a law is passed for religious reasons its for the wrong reasons

      April 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • StoopidIzAzStoopidDuz

      Would you argue that the 10 Commandments aren't "helpful"? Or how about the Golden Rule?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Michael

      Does that mean non believers can covet your wife or your mother if she's married? Open season!!!

      April 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  14. vanessa

    Great write! I agree with you, that to even understand the culture we are living in– we ought to do our part to understand our cultural history. The bible is alluded to in almost all of the great works of Western literature, and if you don't know anything about the bible– you have a limited understanding of the literary greats as well. What is worse– is that modern literature draws heavily off of the great works of the past, so to understand any of it– a student of Western culture, literature, and history must first understand something about the bible. Whether people love it or hate it– the bible, along with Greco-Roman influences, have deeply influenced the making of this country. We alienate ourselves from too much, when we disregard this book.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  15. Mark

    The Bible: A grim fairy tale. No thanks! As Mark Twain said, "Faith is believing in what you know ain't so."

    April 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Reverend Strategy Pony

      It's amazing how this work of fiction influences the world today. What utter drivel.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Tolerant?

      I was behind a car the other day that had that saying on a bumper sticker, but it was attributed to Nietzsche. Interesting how liberals, who are so tolerant and accepting of everyone except those who dare to profess a belief in God, always claim that Christians can't think for themselves. Apparently you can't even correctly credit the source of your (borrowed) dime-store "philosophy."

      April 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Christians can tell you've never read Proverbs 18:4,7,20,21.


      April 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  16. ToniRose

    I agree with Pete: There are a lot of lost souls out there. We will keep praying for you....God Bless....

    April 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Damn

      Please do not count me with your BS prayers!

      April 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Phalen

      Don't need your condescending crap prayers.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      I'm atheist, but I'm not lost. However, if it makes you happy to pray, go for it.

      April 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Know What

      "We will keep praying for you"

      And we will keep thinking for you. Peace

      April 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      ToniRose, all these stooges tried to think, but nothing worked. Woo, woo. Moe Curly.


      April 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  17. Truthy

    And the author has read the Koran as well? Love how she dismisses the Torah too. What drivel. Its pretty clear and common sense: dont murder people, even murderers.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Mark C

      Uh, she didn't dismiss the Torah, moron, she discussed it at length. And while we're on the subject, since you like the Torah so much, you should get a clue and read it some time, as it authorizes death as a penalty for a couple dozen different crimes. Who is dismissing the Torah now, half-wit?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Jesus tells us to send murderers back to Him. It's man's/woman's refusal to abide in Jesus' truth that keep murderers murdering.


      April 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  18. Eric

    I can think of lots of other books that would give you a much better understanding of the world around you than the bible. If you choose to read the bible, really read it then read Age of Reason by Thomas Paine and enjoy a laugh or cry. And Deme, you can't pray for god to open non-believers eyes or to soften our hearts. The whole concept of free will prevents intervention in that department if you believe the musings of middle-eastern goat-herders.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Yes, the eternal flames will be flush with non-believers who refuse to repent, ask Jesus for forgiveness and sin no more. Their choice and they choose foolishly.


      April 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  19. GI JOHN

    22 “How long will you simple ones[d] love your simple ways?
    How long will mockers delight in mockery
    and fools hate knowledge?
    23 If you had responded to my rebuke,
    I would have poured out my heart to you
    and made my thoughts known to you.
    24 But since you rejected me when I called
    and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand,
    25 since you ignored all my advice
    and would not accept my rebuke,
    26 I in turn will laugh at your disaster;
    I will mock when calamity overtakes you—
    27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm,
    when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind,
    when distress and trouble overwhelm you.

    28 “Then they will call to me but I will not answer;
    they will look for me but will not find me.
    29 Since they hated knowledge
    and did not choose to fear the LORD,
    30 since they would not accept my advice
    and spurned my rebuke,
    31 they will eat the fruit of their ways
    and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
    32 For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,


    April 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • COLady

      You are the epitome of what is destroying this country today.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Damn


      April 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • perry

      Levi is that you?

      April 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Really?

      As an atheist, your fairy tales are the least of my worries. Quit worrying about what others believe and live your life.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • i wonder

      GI JOHN,

      Sounds like someone is fixin' to boil someone's pet rabbit there.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Mark C

      Oh shut up, you pretentious, self-righteous, gaseous imbecile.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • jessie

      Youre dumb! its 2011 anyone who still believes in GOD should be drug outside and shot. Get with the times and realize that no matter how much you want to be around for forever, that you wont. You will die and there will be nothing.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • S Blunts

      It's 420 man just sit back and burn one. Stop yelling.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Doubter2

      One day, I was listening to a program my hubby was watching where they were discussing human sacrifice/cannibalistic religions. Take one nonreproducing male of the tribe. Give him a really great year. Then load him up with all the sins of the entire tribe and sacrifice him to your god to do expiation for everybody. Then eat piece of him for good measure. I was floored. Let's see–set up a religion where someone pays for everything you've ever done wrong and then remember him by symbolically drinking his blood and eating his flesh–wow–Christianity! Human sacrifice religion with symbolic cannibalism! I am the last person to excoriate loving, thinking Christians, but a little closer examination of what Jesus intended and a little less mindless blathering of what they've been fed would be a good idea for the rest of these folks...

      April 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Ed

      As a believer I find my conversations with the athiests far more interesting than with you. We should talk to them and learn from each. That is what Christ did we should follow his example. Also berating them like this helps no one. Most of them are complaining that we religious behave poorly ot our fellow man which is at least part of why they don't believe in God. Then you come on berate them and prove their point that many of us treat other poorly. Think about talk to them the way you want them to talk to you. You will have abetter conversation, more fun and you oth man learn something new, so its win-win.

      April 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • GDR

      One of the best posts I have ever seen – thank you! When someone tries to talk to a Christian about athiesm, the likely response from the Christian is to pray for that person in love and suggest that they read the Bible before claiming to know anything about it. Conversely, when a Christian tries to discuss the Bible with an athiest the response is typically ridicule and hate – just as we see in these blog posts. Why is that? Well, as you say, their God is Satan and he is the embodiment of evil. So, as the Good Lord said, we should simply "forgive them for they know not what they do" and move on. I have found that trying to reason with them – even if you have a doctorate degree – is generally a waste of time...... Such a shame since they are missing out on the greatest joy in life – period!!!

      April 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Doubter2

      @GDR: I am not hating and I am not an atheist. I just found it to be a rather unsettling thing once noticed...

      April 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      GI John,


      Fools do themselves in with the sins of pride and lust, just as their father Lucifer (aka satan).

      April 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  20. Damn

    I can not read TOILET PAPERS!!

    April 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.